Bringing the internet to Idjwi island. Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo

Ensemble Pour La Difference connecting Idjwi island to public access internet. South Kivu, DRC. June 2016.

Since 2015, we have built and maintained, a sustainable, community WiFi network on Idjwi island, Lake Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo.

We are the non-profit organisation, Ensemble Pour La Difference, a social business incubator in Congo. We help Congolese owned businesses to design & innovate. We work solely in the difficult Kivu region of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

In this set of articles we hope to inspire, and illustrate how you could connect your community, no matter how remote, or constrained.

Mikeno, North Kivu, DRC

The Democratic Republic Of Congo.

The Democratic Republic Of Congo (DRC) is a huge, densely populated country in the centre of sub-saharan Africa. The DRC is lush, tropical, volcanic and extremely rich in natural resources, with an estimated $24 trillion in untapped mineral deposits.

However, the people of the DRC have had to withstand political instability, the deadliest global conflict in the post-war era and a desperate lack of infrastructure investment.

As of 2017, the UN ranks it 176th in the lowest tier of countries in terms of human development. It is one of the poorest countries in the world.

U.N. sortie & children in Luvungi, Kivu, DRC

Decades of unrest, corruption, exploitation and civil war have blighted the nation. Instability continues to this day in the eastern Kivu region.

There are many active rebel groups in North and South Kivu making it an extremely difficult location for aid organisations to operate. The wealth of the country is not fed back into the population, but finds it’s way, via these rebel groups and corrupt officials, into foreign businesses, banks and investments.

Nevertheless, extraordinary groups of Congolese people are working hard together to change the situation they have been born into.

We support these visionaries to develop innovative solutions under extreme constraints. We help Congolese people independently employ and raise the living standards of their own communities.

Lake Kivu at dusk

Idjwi island, Lake Kivu.

Idjwi island, (population: 300,000) is situated on one of Africa’s great lakes, Lake Kivu, in the volcanic Rift Valley on the border of Rwanda. Idjwi had become a natural refuge during the Congolese wars and Rwandan genocide during the 90’s and 00’s. It’s resources are deeply stretched as a result.

In the poorest country, Idjwi is one of the poorest locations, with many families surviving on as little as $1 per day, well below the international poverty line.

Many people are illiterate and life is especially hard for women, the youngest children and older generations due to chronic malnutrition and malaria.

Idjwi island, South Kivu, DRC

Idjwi’s main exports are artisanal coffee, and rudimentary tungsten mining, mostly managed via local cooperatives. We have supported these cooperatives on Idjwi island that employ thousands of islanders. Our relationship with the island’s leadership means we have first hand knowledge of the specific, daily issues they face.

The king of the island, the “Chefferie,” Mwami Rubenga, told us that he was worried for the island’s older generation. Many of the island’s youth decide to leave Idjwi to find a better life in the cities.

Bugarula, Idjwi

The king reasoned, that due to it’s isolation from the outside world, Idjwi is constrained by a lack of opportunities for the young to grow their businesses. The elderly and infirm are concerned over who will provide their care as the younger generation leaves.

The king asked us to find a way to connect the island to the internet. With access and connectivity, the people would have a tool that would help them better their standard of living.

The king understood, that connectivity, and the opportunity it brings, changes lives, and makes staying on Idjwi more attractive.

The Connectivity Challenge in Eastern DRC.

Broadband internet, provided by optical fibre cable, skirts the coastline of Africa and reaches into the continent. Unfortunately it does not reach to the eastern DRC. Connections stop in Rwanda.

The source of everyone’s internet in South Kivu, DRC, is via complex 3rd party arrangements with Rwandan internet suppliers. Internet backhaul is transmitted from Rwanda via high powered WiFi antennas from mast to mast, over the border and into the country.

The mark-up in these arrangements is tantamount to a Rwandan cartel, where price fixes are applied to Eastern DRC at approximately $200 per mb/s. Independent satellite connections are the only, slower and much more expensive, independent alternative.

If you want to connect in a major town in Kivu, you must depend on 2G or 3G mobile data from major telecommunication players such as Vodacom, Orange and Airtel. But in rural areas, their coverage is non-existent, due to the general lack of infrastructure investment, and the unprofitable buying power of the population.

In the cities, a mobile data contract can cost as much as the average Idjwi citizen’s monthly salary.

There is no power on Idjwi, nor roads to build and maintain a scaled, industry standard mobile network. Only working together as a cooperative, could a community like Idjwi fund and maintain a public internet connection.

UFIN co-op for vulnerable women. Building a community mast at Muganzo. Idjwi island

Working together to connect the island.

With a commitment from local cooperatives to collectively cover a connection in Rwanda (a monthly cost of $800 for 4mb/s), Ensemble could provide start up infrastructure investment, with a time and resources donation.

Getting the internet backhaul to the island was going to be the biggest challenge.

Any internet connection can be transmitted long distances using point-to-point, powerful WiFi antennas. But the longer the link, the more difficult it is to successfully align and maintain a quality connection.

Completed mast, Muganzo mountain, Idjwi.

WiFi cannot travel through water, trees or tall buildings. We needed high enough locations and masts, so that our link could travel 50km over Lake Kivu.

Building masts meant we needed to understand lightning protection, experiment with building materials, antenna types, routers and settings. We had to power everything with solar.

We needed to carefully connect mountain-top to mountain-top, mast to mast, down into a public access internet kiosk we constructed at the island’s major market town of Bugarula (pop. 10,000).

Free, public access internet kiosk, Bugarula, Idjwi.

Pamoja Net.

Now … by 2018, we have built many more masts in phased deployments, connecting businesses and cooperatives that maintain the costs. We have founded the community network, Pamoja Net. “Pamoja” is Swahili for togetherness.

Pamoja, is a non-profit, community owned WiFi business. Small businesses on the island contribute to the material and bandwidth costs in return for dedicated connections during working hours. Subsequently, these fees help support free public WiFi on evenings and weekends.

Through connectivity, we are helping the islanders connect their hospitals to the internet. Idjwi’s doctors could consult internationally on chronic medical conditions.

Ensemble supports the island’s coffee growing cooperative CPNCK, and Pamoja internet helps farmers communicate effectively with fair-trade export organisations, helping their product reach a global market. Idjwi’s coffee is now being exported in bulk and has even been sold in Starbucks. It has one of the highest quality coffee scores in the world.

Pamoja engineers at work on Idjwi

The fishermen on the island did not know weather conditions before they set sail on the lake. Lake Kivu is renowned for treacherous storms, situated as it is in the middle of the world’s lightning capital. Many men have drowned, leaving behind single parent mothers to look after large families. The internet now provides weather reports keeping the fishermen safe.

The young people have entertainment in their village, watching YouTube, maintaining Facebook accounts and communicating together in a Pamoja WhatsApp group of 300 members.

The future. Connecting your community.

Pamoja continues to grow, and we are experimenting with open-source cellular communications. Many people do not own a smartphone and are illiterate. Pamoja helps to support the island’s illiterate population with calling, SMS and voice enabled services.

Despite the impoverished and isolated nature of the island, our network shows that the demand and impact of connectivity is as powerful as anywhere else. We have shown that even the poorest people, with no technical education, can build and sustain their own network with their own funds, given the initial support of a fair loan, and help from organisations like ours.

Follow this series of articles as we share our progress and easy technical instructions on how you could replicate our network. You could create your own telecommunications infrastructure for your remote community.

Read about the impact of Pamoja on the people of Idjwi

If you would like to find out more about our work, visit our website.

Pamoja, covered by The Guardian newspaper

Coming soon …

Planning your network with your community

Buying bandwidth, and creating a backhaul.

Building your mast, protecting it from lightning strike and powering it with solar

Connecting and configuring antenna links

Managing a hotspot

Measuring the success of your network